Melonie Johnson’s love for numbers as a child led her to major in accounting at the University of New Orleans, where she even tutored algebra.
“I never second guessed it,” said Johnson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1983. “Even as a kid, I had an affinity for numbers and problem solving. I knew that English or history would not pique my interest. The accounting side of this is what challenged me and I understood it very well because that’s the way my brain worked.”
Her plan, Johnson said, was to become a chief financial officer. That plan changed, however, after she started working in the gaming industry in New Orleans.
“I’m a people person and I’m very social,” Johnson said. “I started in the finance department and just fell in love with the business.”
Johnson was a financial manager for Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans and was part of the team that opened the temporary casino at the Municipal Auditorium and then the permanent casino that’s now located at the foot of Canal Street.
“I worked my way through finance and eventually said I wanted to get operational experience and started working in operations,” Johnson said. “I eventually ended up being an assistant general manager and then general manger and a property president.”
In 2020, Johnson was appointed president and chief operating officer of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she oversees the daily operations and strategic direction of the 2,800-room luxury resort, which is part of the MGM Resorts International brand.
Johnson is the first Black woman to be named president of an Atlantic City casino and is among only a handful of women gaming leaders nationwide.
“Historically it’s been a male dominated industry and now, with diversity and inclusion, women are managing casino properties,” said Johnson, who has more than 25 years of leadership experience in hospitality and gaming.
Johnson has been with MGM resorts since 2015, and has held leadership positions at major U.S. properties, most recently serving as president and COO of MGM National Harbor in Maryland and Gold Strike Casino Resort in Mississippi, prior to that.
“I’m very fortunate and proud to work for MGM Resorts International. I’m working for a company that believes in green sustainability, believes in diversity and inclusion and promotes that profusely,” Johnson said. “This is my work home, literally. I feel good about it.”
The gaming industry is more than just casinos and offers an array of career opportunities, Johnson said. At the Atlantic City property, Johnson has 12 direct reports who supervise areas such as gaming, IT, security, retail, financial accounting, food and beverages.
“This is a business that affords you the opportunity to have a career versus a job,” Johnson said. “If you’re mobile and you want a career, you can pretty much go as far as you want to go in this industry, it’s not just gaming. It’s an industry that provides gaming, but there are huge career opportunities within a casino.”
The Borgata Hotel and Casino Spa is part of MGM Resorts International, an S&P 500® global entertainment company with national and international locations.
“This is a premier property in Atlantic City. When you walk into this property, it has all the bells and whistles and you feel as if you’re at a Las Vegas-style resort,” Johnson said. “Our logo is, ‘Welcome to your happy place, The Borgata.’”
The resort includes seven pools, retail shops, multiple restaurants, a spa, concert venue, and casino that offers sports betting.
“You can check in at this property on Thursday and leave Monday morning and never have to leave the property,” Johnson said. “Everything you could want – shopping, dining, entertainment, spa, pool experience and gaming—is under one roof. We make the vast majority of our money through casino gaming, slots, table games, poker and now we’ve added sports betting as well.”
Johnson said she likes to spend time walking the resort talking to employees and guests to get insight on how things are going.
“I look at the physical facility to make sure everything is in operational order. I look at guest behavior; I look at employee behavior,” she said. “I talk to guests, ‘Hey, thank you for coming. I’d like to hear your thoughts about the property.’ And I do the same thing with employees, what’s working, what’s not working.”
Atlantic City is a different world from the small town of Lacombe, Louisiana, where Johnson grew up.
When she left home for college at the age of 17, Johnson had not ventured much further than the North Shore. In the University of New Orleans, she sought a school that was close to home, but with classes small enough to fit her comfort level.
“I had truly not been exposed to anything beyond Lacombe, Slidell, Mandeville, Covington,” said Johnson, whose daughter Shelbie is also an alumna. “I needed a certain level of comfort. The comfort was the more intimate classroom environment that the university provided.
“Living in Bienville Hall, it gave me a sense of ‘adulting’, learning how to manage my time … I could evolve into a self-sufficient adult.”
In recalling her UNO days, Johnson said she is grateful for an office communications course she was required to take as part of her degree program. The course included lessons on how to write memos and different style letters.
“I learned all of this so when I entered the work world … I didn’t necessarily need an administrative assistant to do those tasks,” Johnson said. “I was well-prepared.”
And, while Johnson said she was on a four-year plan to graduate, she advises students to take full advantage of their college years to explore different paths. It is OK, Johnson said, to slow down and enjoy the college life.
“It’s not just an education that is going to make you the full package; you’ve got to have a social aspect to your life,” she said. “Education is important; you’ve got to have a great foundation, but no one wants to be around someone who only talks about business. You have to have more to you as a person than just talking about a job.”